12 Will Digitisation Help Remobilise Civil Society?

(Original in French)

Charles Vallerand[1]

The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (hereafter referred to as CDCE or Convention) may be one of the few multilateral treaties that acknowledges the contribution of the civil society, because of its historic role within the international movement that led to its adoption, but also because diversity of cultural expressions is largely based on freedom of artistic creation. Article 11 of the Convention states that:

Parties acknowledge the fundamental role of civil society in protecting and promoting the diversity of cultural expressions. Parties shall encourage the active participation of civil society in their efforts to achieve the objectives of this Convention. (CDCE, Article 11)

The embryo of the first coalition for cultural diversity saw the light in France about fifteen years ago, then in Canada, and later expanded to about forty countries on the five continents, with a particularly presence in Western Europe, French-speaking Africa and Latin America. Initially joined in an informal network called “International Liaison Committee,” the coalitions deemed it necessary, after the Convention was adopted, to formalise their relations with UNESCO by acquiring a legal structure and governance system. The International Federation of Coalitions for Cultural Diversity was born in Seville in 2007 and held its subsequent sessions in Salvador da Bahia (2009), Bratislava (2012) and Mons (2015).

A coalition for cultural diversity represents various associations of professional artists from all cultural industries – actors, musicians, producers, directors, authors, publishers, dancers, singers, etc. – with one common goal: to affirm the sovereign right of governments to adopt measures in favour of national cultural expressions, as agreed amongst the Parties to the 2005 Convention. This fundamental right thus aims to prove the legitimacy of subventions and other government assistance in the present context of globalisation and proliferation of trade agreements which tend to neutralise the effect of those public policies considered non-tariff barriers.

Coalitions for cultural diversity are unique in that they are the only civil society organisations that represent the whole cultural environment. Coalitions provide a handy way for governments to have access to all fields of expertise through a single contact point. A coalition must first reach a consensus amongst its members before presenting it to the government.

One of the essential tasks of coalitions remains to promote the Convention. In Senegal, the Convention was translated in 9 languages. The Malian Coalition translated it in bamanan kan, one of the most spoken national languages and provided an audio version of it to community radios, so as to reach the vast percentage of the population who is illiterate. Another example of public communication is that of the French Coalition, which every year discerns a prize highlighting the significant contribution of a specific individual or organisation.

Efforts to promote the Convention are generally motivated by an intent to widen the consensus and open up to the diversity of cultural expressions. The office of the International Federation of Coalitions for Cultural Diversity, based in Montreal, does everything possible to demonstrate the same openness. The Canadian Coalition and International Federation websites, which record a total of 160 000 unique visits per year, offer contents in French, English and Spanish.

Coalitions are also very active at the national level by engaging their authorities in a dialogue aimed at implementing the Convention. That is the first vocation of their commitment. The dynamics of such relations are specific to each country, since within a same continent the countries development level and the priority given to culture vary greatly. The Convention makes it possible, maybe for the first time, to recognize the value of the artist’s and the civil society’s contribution. The implementation of the Convention requires a reinforcement of capabilities, made possible by the assistance programmes set up by the International Organisation of la Francophonie and UNESCO. Ministry executive and parliamentarian trainings are also open to civil society representatives, which is a first.

The obligation for Parties to the Convention to produce an implementation report every four years after ratifying it is an opportunity to take stock of the civil society’s participation. The operational guidelines regarding the preparation of the quadrennial periodic report require for the Parties to consult with the civil society. The periodic report must also mention the participation of creators’ associations in the elaboration of national cultural policy. Based on the first 45 periodic reports submitted to UNESCO, experts were able to draw an analytical synthesis. The general takeaway was that civil society, with some exceptions, is deemed insufficiently organised, insufficiently informed or insufficiently mobilised. This did not prevent some coalitions to position themselves as privileged contact points with their governments on Convention-related issues, such as how trade agreements deal with culture (Canada, France, Chile, Australia), international cooperation in the cultural field (Switzerland, Great Britain, Germany, Austria), the artist condition and freedom of artistic creation (Slovakia, Morocco, Peru) or the role of culture in national strategies of sustainable development (Burkina Faso).

I – A Pluralist Civil Society

The International Federation of Coalitions for Cultural Diversity is not the only civil society movement that has been mobilised. So has the International Theatre Institute, the International Music Council, the European Broadcasting Union, the International Network for Cultural Diversity, the International Network of Lawyers for the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (Réseau international de juristes pour la diversité des expressions culturelles, RIJDEC), the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies, etc. The list goes on, which shows that the UNESCO Convention stroke a chord with a wide range of cultural associations and individuals who see, in the Convention, an agent for change.

The debate which is taking place at ONU for the adoption of Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development is a good example of the power of mobilisation of civil society. Eight large international networks[2] from the arts and culture scene joined forces to launch, in May 2014, a world campaign which gathered over 2500 signatures, 1000 of which from organisations, in 120 countries. The text of the Declaration, available online on the website www.culture2015goal.net, was translated by volunteers in 7 languages – French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian and Chinese – so as to demonstrate the universal significance of the message.

Their common action resonated all the way to the United Nations headquarters in New York, where members States suddenly realized the scale of the cultural world’s mobilisation. This brought legitimacy to UNESCO and its allies, members of the “Group of Friends of Culture for Development” presided by Peru’s permanent delegate to the UN. Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, adopted by the General Assembly in September 2015, is an important step forward in that, for the first time, it recognizes the role of culture by using specific targets. Precise performance indicators will be linked to these targets, which will make it possible, in due time, to give a tangible demonstration of the progress recorded.

The other important role played by these international non-government organisations has been to voice their members’ concerns during UNESCO discussions on operational guidelines establishing the enforcement modalities of each one of the Convention articles, so as to ensure that the Convention would truly come to fruition and not remain a mere political statement. Incidentally, the Intergovernmental Committee of Parties to the Convention requested that a discussion item on the role of civil society be, from now on, included in the agenda of all its meetings. It also accepted that all documents submitted by the civil society for information would be made available to all participants before the meeting so they may be taken into account during the discussion. This constitutes considerable progress, which the civil society must seize in order to give it full effect.

II – Challenges

Generally speaking, the cultural field has to work with limited financial means. This is true for the coalitions movement, which has benefitted from the support of the Quebec and Canada governments to finance a great part of its activities, as well as a financial contribution from the Canadian Coalition member associations, which offer a secretarial service to the International Federation of Coalitions. It is also true for the Convention secretarial office at UNESCO, whose everyday activities rely increasingly on voluntary contributions from member States. Sweden recently donated 2.5 million USD, but requested that they be used to set up a programme to build capacity in 12 priority countries of its choice, focusing on human rights and creative freedom, areas little emphasized until now. Such penury of resources is also true for the International Fund for Cultural Diversity (IFCD), set up under the Convention, whose voluntary financing can now only support about ten projects per year, to the amount of 100,000 USD each.

This resource issue is all the more acute as the number of countries which have ratified the Convention has increased to 143, the vast majority of which are developing countries. UNESCO is counting on the results of the Swedish-financed programme to attract other sponsors. It entails a cooperation axis with member States which is ideal in every way and which eventually could further weaken IFCD financing and therefore civil society, whose projects received 60 % of the aid granted.

The other great challenge faced by the coalitions is that of governance. The movement saw the day about fifteen years ago. The very first campaigners, who were strongly committed against globalization, the domination of Hollywood on the screens of the world, and WTO multilateral negotiations, have for the most part moved on to something else. In various developing countries, the same individuals are spread thin working on every cause. They mobilise strongly wherever the urgency demands it. At the latest Coalition Federation Congress held in Mons in October 2015, it was decided that several coalitions, who had not been heard from since the previous congress in Bratislava in September 2012, would have two years to comply to the membership policy. Meanwhile, a recruiting campaign aimed at attracting youth, recruiting new members, expanding to new countries, new regions… has started to bear fruit. Relief is on the way.

Nevertheless, this opening comes with a new challenge for the coalitions movement: to open to new realities of diversity of cultural expressions, and to issues which are not limited to northern countries, mostly focused on the relationship between culture and trade agreements. The final resolution adopted during the Mons congress includes aspects related to the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions, incorporates concerns from the southern countries regarding the need for innovative financing, while also opening a brand new perspective on organisations and creators in conflict zones, where the diversity of expressions is at risk when it is not completely flouted.

In short, the coalitions movement has somehow become a victim of its own success. The general mobilisation around the concept of the Convention itself is now replaced by very diverse challenges, extremely different from one country to the next depending on the development level, and even in cases where a consensus exists, as is the case regarding the impact of the digital era for instance, the target of militant actions is much more diffuse and multiform. The governance of the Internet, tax evasion by the big Internet players, international conventions on authors’ rights, commercial negotiations which now include a chapter on digital trade… are all onerous themes which largely escape UNESCO. The Parties to Convention have their work cut out for them to set up a realistic work plan in a field where everything still has to be done.

As far as UNESCO is concerned, this could be an opportunity to position itself at the heart of the great challenges of the communication age, and for the Convention the opportunity to prove its relevance. It shall also be an opportunity to invite and engage the civil society groups – there are many of them – who have committed to making the Internet a space dedicated to democracy and diversity of cultural expressions. It shall be particularly important, in months and years to come, to involve them actively in the work of Convention bodies, so that the Convention does not run the risk of appealing exclusively to UNESCO delegations and the sectoral ministries officers concerned.


There is no greater risk for an international treaty than to sink into oblivion. The continuing commitment of civil society groups is one of the Convention’s most precious assets. The International Federation of Coalitions enjoys a great reputation and a capital of sympathy. By providing adequate support and recognition to creators and artists, they will be sure to keep on campaigning for the implementation of the Convention, beyond government and civil servants changes, and to be the guardians of the Convention and its funding principles. That is what the international movement of coalitions is working on, through its cooperation programmes and solidarity networks. That is what UNESCO and the International Organisation of la Francophonie are working on, through their technical assistance programmes. That is what the Swedish cooperation is working on by setting the artist condition and creative freedom at the heart of its project. Let us hope that more will follow this example.

  1. Consultant, former General Director of the Canadian Coalition for Cultural Diversity (Coalition canadienne pour la diversité culturelle) and former General Secretary of the International Federation of Coalitions for Cultural Diversity (Fédération internationale des coalitions pour la diversité culturelle).
  2. Arterial Network, Culture Action Europe, Agenda 21 for Culture of United Cities and Local Governments (CGLU), International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA), International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), International Federation of Coalitions for Cultural Diversity, International Music Council, International Library Federation and Red Latinoamericana de Arte y Transformación Social.

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